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‘How technology transformed my pupils’ engagement’: a teacher writes

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Engaging the current generation of learners, who have grown up surrounded by technology in a culture of instant gratification, can sometimes be a struggle. In a world where they can find the answer to a problem simply by googling it, learners’ attention-spans are short and a “hook” can be required to draw them in.

With more and more teachers choosing to integrate technology into their lessons, there is no denying that it has the power to capture the imagination of pupils who easily become disengaged. And if technology can be used in this way, then teachers should pursue the opportunities it provides.

So here are my five tried-and-tested ways of using technology positively as a “hook” or tool to engage learners.

1.   Immersive worlds to aid creative writing

One excellent tool to inspire great writing and an example of games-based learning is Epic Citadel. This simple but beautifully realised game allows pupils to explore its fantasy world without being distracted by too much gameplay, so the focus can be entirely on their virtual surroundings. Pupils love that they are able to wander around the world and many choose to download it onto their own devices in order to keep exploring in their own time.

And access to virtual worlds is not just confined to imaginary ones – these days, pupils can visit all kinds of places that would previously have been impossible, from countries on the other side of the world to national parks, famous museums, landmarks and even the ocean.

Google Expeditions, for example, works alongside the virtual reality viewer, Google Cardboard, to allow entire classes to go on virtual field trips. Using the viewer, students can simultaneously share the same experience, providing an incredible source of inspiration for writers. In the same way that pupils enjoy exploring the world of Epic Citadel, they can have a similar immersive experience thanks to Expeditions, Cardboard and Google Earth, which can be used in a variety of ways across your curriculum.

2.   Inspirational videos

Literacy Shed holds a wealth of resources, aimed mostly at key stages 1 and 2, which inspire fantastic writing. With images, videos and teaching ideas sorted into “sheds” (Post-apocalyptic Shed, Sci-Fi Shed, Adventure Shed, and so on), these resources can provide the “hook” that leads to high-quality writing, improved vocabulary and an increased level of engagement.

3.   Visual reward systems

Applying typical elements of gaming – for example, point-scoring, competition and rules of play – to another context is known as “gamification”. Class Dojo and Classcraft are two great examples of this.

Class Dojo allows you to create a customisable reward system so that pupils gain or lose points for specific skills or situations – such as “working hard” or “teamwork”. This helps to make it relevant to your class and your school.

You can also share photos of work, videos of activities and class updates – as you would on a social media wall – to provide pupils, parents and other teachers in your school with a clearer idea of what learning is taking place in the classroom.

Classcraft, meanwhile, is an online educational role-playing game that also uses a reward system to motivate pupils.

4.   Presenting information

When it comes to asking pupils to record what they know about a topic, passing ownership of the task to them – and asking them to use a variety of programs and tools in completing it – is a powerful way to engage their interest and reinforce their understanding.

If you want pupils to present information collaboratively, Google Slides, Google Docs and Google Sheets provide this capability. They allow pupils to work together on one document from different computers, and to continue working on their personal devices at home.

Pupils like that everyone’s contributions are clearly marked, meaning that the teacher can see exactly what each member of the class has added. The ability to collectively edit work not only improves its quality and accuracy, but also helps pupils to focus on and engage with the task at hand – and it adds a competitive element to the process.

Rather than relying solely on PowerPoint to present information, you could encourage students to try other programs and apps. Prezi is popular, and the Show Me interactive whiteboard also works well. Alternatively, ThingLink is a good option if you want to collect information in one location.

You could even allow pupils to make a video or a stop-motion animation using Stop Motion Studio or Adobe Spark Video (this is just one of the features offered by the Adobe Spark graphic design app, alongside Adobe Spark Page, which is useful for creating interactive, attractive web pages).

5.   Assessing pupils’ understanding

You can also use technology as a tool for formative assessment. This helps to break up activities into smaller chunks, with the additional benefit of drawing pupils back into the learning when they may normally struggle to stay focused for extended periods.

A great tool for this which doesn’t require pupils to have their own device and which provides instant feedback is Plickers. With this system, the teacher writes questions on the board and pupils hold up a response card to indicate their choice (A, B, C or D). The teacher then uses a device to scan the room, picking up the QR codes on the cards, and the device highlights each pupil’s name in either red or green depending on their answer. This instantly identifies students’ understanding and, because it needs minimum preparation (just the availability of the cards and the quiz questions), Plickers can be used at a moment’s notice.

Pupils love the interactivity and instant feedback, and for the teacher it is an excellent tool that informs future planning.

But whereas Plickers is best suited to instant polling and multiple-choice questions, Google Forms allows pupils to answer questions in a variety of ways. These range from selecting answers from a dropdown menu to inputting large amounts of text, making it the perfect system for testing and setting homework, as well as general surveys within school.

Staff can use the data that Forms collates to analyse the extent of pupils’ understanding and identify areas to focus on in future lessons; they can also view the information in Google Sheets.

I have personal experience of the dramatic effect these tools can have on pupils in lessons, capturing the imagination of children who would previously have struggled to remain focused.

For one particular boy, having such an effective reward system has made all the difference to his achievement, behaviour and engagement in lessons. As a keen gamer, he enjoys the gamification elements and immediate rewards of Class Dojo. Before introducing the app in my lessons, I found that that he achieved far less and was notably disengaged. Now, you can almost guarantee that he will be the child who reminds me that I haven’t projected the app onto the board, informs me when I have awarded a child an incorrect number of points and will almost always have the most points at the end of the lesson.

With methods of implementing technology in your lessons constantly evolving, and if using it creatively in your lessons allows you to engage children who would previously have switched off, then isn’t that too good an opportunity to miss?

Siobhán Morgan is a Year 6 teacher at a Somerset middle school, where she is head of computing. She also leads computing across the West Somerset Academies Trust, from Foundation Stage to key stage 3.